Passion drove Dr Frankie Tan to join the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) as a sports physiologist nine years ago. The SSI is Singapore’s national institute for elite athlete development.

Says 40-year-old Dr Tan: “I usually tell people I’m a sports scientist to avoid misunderstanding! Many people tend to confuse the job of a physiologist with that of a physiotherapist.”

A sports physiotherapist specialises in the treatment of physical dysfunction or injury, which is a totally different field from sports physiology.

Having studied physical education with the National Institute of Education, Dr Tan started his career as a physical education teacher at the National Junior College. He was actively involved in coaching and organising tertiary and national-level canoeing tournaments as the national convenor for schools while serving as a committee member for the Singapore Canoe Federation.

He also conducted fitness instructor courses for potential instructors and fitness enthusiasts at the Singapore Sports Council. His passion for sports science helped him apply scientific principles, techniques and technologies to improve the performance of athletes. During this time, he furthered his studies and obtained a first-class honours degree from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, in PE and Sports Science with specialisation in Exercise Physiology.

The satisfaction he gained from seeing the immense progress in the athletes’ performance was a major factor in Dr Tan’s decision to further specialise in exercise physiology by joining the SSI. During his transition to elite-sport services, Dr Tan earned a master’s degree for his research in exercise physiology from the National Institute of Education /Nanyang Technological University.

After working with Singapore’s elite athletes for four years at the SSI, Dr Tan went on to pursue his doctoral studies at the University of Western Australia. His research on sports physiology in collaboration with the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS) and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) offered him the chance to work with the world’s top-ranking national women’s water-polo team, the Stingers.

The collaborative research had a significant impact on the team during their training for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Adds Dr Tan: “My stint in Australia was invaluable. The benefit of working alongside world-class coaches, athletes and sports scientists was of great benefit to me.”

For his effort, Dr Tan received the Robert Withers PhD Scholar Award from the AIS. Presented only to the top PhD scholars who have made a substantial impact on Australian sport, this recognition was great encouragement to him.

Dr Tan conducts applied research within his office, which resembles a laboratory. Putting theory into action enhances the sports performance of athletes, allowing coaches to see vast improvements in cycling, triathlon, rowing and distance running. “Bridging academia and practical application is no easy job and it is a daily challenge,” he says.

He keeps up with the latest developments by reading extensively and attending conferences. Says Dr Tan: “A lot of time is spent with athletes in their training and competition environment to gain a better understanding of their physiological responses to exercise.”

One of his achievements was introducing new technologies and methods for Singapore’s national cyclists during their training for the 2005 Philippines South-east Asia Games. Using computer technologies and a specially designed stationary bicycle, Dr Tan successfully simulated the actual race-course conditions in the Philippines, and gave Singapore cyclists Samuel Yang and Junaidi Hashim an extra edge over their competitors.

Speaking of his aspirations, Dr Tan hopes to propel more local athletes onto the international stage. “I want to see more of our local athletes competing at the international level, like the World Championships and then the Olympics. With our athletes getting more exposure, Singapore can develop into a world-class sporting nation,” he says.

With the industry opening up and universities offering more courses, Dr Tan believes there are many career opportunities for those keen in this field. He emphasises the need to expand knowledge in applied research through the careful selection of electives and postgraduate work, as the current courses are more general in nature.

He adds: “It is key to have passion and the enthusiasm to learn, as there are always new developments in the field.”